Tesco’s chief executive says that panic-buying seems to have eased, after the stockpiling witnessed at the start of the coronavirus outbreak.
In an email to customers, Tesco CEO Dave Lewis said a new, ‘more normal’ pattern of shopping was beginning to emerge.
This will come as a relief to many, as Which? research found that 76% of shoppers experienced product shortages in March.
Mr Lewis wrote: ‘As the Prime Minister has said, it looks like we are nearer to the beginning of all this than the end. We are still learning, and still adjusting, so that we can provide you with the food and essentials you need.’
The comments came as some supermarkets – but not Tesco – began to relax the limits placed on grocery purchases in recent weeks.
In this article, Which? explains everything that’s going on with grocery shopping during the coronavirus crisis, including each supermarket’s current product restrictions, and opening hours for health workers and elderly shoppers.
You can scroll down to read the whole story or use the links to skip to particular sections:
- Less rationing in some stores
- Current product restrictions and opening hours by supermarket
- More must be done to help vulnerable shoppers
- Social distancing at supermarkets
- Demand for online delivery slots
- How supermarkets are innovating to meet demand
- Government relaxes competition laws
- Shopping habits changing
- Community groups offer help
Which? has also created a coronavirus advice hub, where you can get all the latest news and advice on what COVID-19 means for your rights, health and lifestyle.
Three-quarters of the population have experienced shortages of products when shopping in recent weeks, according to new Which? research.
In a survey of more than 2,000 members of the public, 76% reported experiencing shortages of products in supermarkets, shops or online. A third (34%) said they could not find hand sanitiser while around a quarter could not find toilet rolls (27%) or rice and pasta (25%).
The research was conducted between 20-24 March and industry spokespeople have reported that stock levels are now beginning to recover as panic-buying eases.
Earlier this week, the British Retail Consortium’s Andrew Opie said: ‘We have definitely seen a fall-off in demand and that’s given an opportunity to replenish the shelves.’
This has led some supermarkets to begin lifting restrictions on how many of each item shoppers can buy.
Aldi, Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose have removed some (but not all) buying restrictions (see below for details).
The other big supermarkets are yet to announce any changes to the limits they’ve imposed.
- Find out more: best and worst UK supermarkets
We’re updating this alphabetised list of supermarket product rationing, opening times and special slots for NHS workers and vulnerable shoppers every time we learn something new.
Some stores are imposing additional restrictions on a localised basis – this list only covers nationwide policies.
Links take you to the Which? review of each supermarket.
|Supermarket||Opening hour changes||Key workers||Elderly/vulnerable shoppers||Item restrictions|
|Aldi||Mon-Sat: closing at 8pm;
Sun (Scotland): closing at 6pm
|NHS workers, police and firefighters get priority in queues and also 30 mins early access before tills open on Sundays||Four on a range of essential items; two per customer for UHT milk, baby formula and antibacterial gels|
|Asda||Reduced opening hours in 24-hour stores||NHS workers:
Mon, Wed, Fri from 8am-9am
|Three of any item per customer, excluding fruit and vegetables and chilled goods; two antibacterial hand gels per person|
|Co-op||Most stores open 7am-8pm Mon-Sat||‘Prioritised’ Mon-Sat 8am-9am; Sun 10am-11am||‘Prioritised’ Mon-Sat 8am-9am; Sun 10am-11am||Two of some items|
|Iceland||Most stores open 9am-5pm Mon-Fri||NHS workers: final hour of trading Mon-Sat||First hour of trading Mon-Sat||Some items, including antibacterial soaps and wipes, restricted|
|Lidl||Varies by store – check Lidl’s store locator||Four of some items, including household essentials|
|Marks & Spencer||First hour of trading on Tue and Fri||First hour of trading on Mon and Thu||Two items per customer on frozen food, home products, groceries and eggs|
|Morrisons||Mon-Sat 8am-8pm; Sun no change||Mon-Sat 7am-8am||Four of some items per customer|
|Ocado||No new customers accepted at the moment||
Limiting some products to one or two items per order
It has temporarily stopped delivering bottled water
no change on Sundays
|Mon-Sat 7.30am-8am||Mon, Wed, Fri 8am-9am||Limits will begin to be lifted on Sunday (April 5). Limit of three remains on popular items, including UHT milk, pasta and tinned tomatoes|
|Tesco (not Express stores)||Reduced opening hours in 24-hour stores||
Tue and Thu 9am-10am
Browsing hour before checkouts open on Sun
|Mon, Wed, Fri 9am-10am||Three-item limit on all products; two items on certain products and some Express stores limiting essential items to one. No multibuy offers except on Easter eggs. Max 80 items in online orders.|
|Waitrose||Daily essentials kept aside; priority at checkouts||First hour of opening||Three-item limit on a range of products except toilet roll, which is limited to two. No limits on fresh goods.|
A survey of almost 16,000 Which? members found that many vulnerable people had been unable to find the products they needed.
Supermarkets are putting measures in place to help – for example, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose have said they’re using a government database to identify registered customers who are extremely vulnerable.
However, Sue Davies, head of consumer protection and food policy at Which?, said that more needed to be done to help get food to the very vulnerable.
She said: ‘It is particularly concerning that we are hearing from vulnerable consumers who are struggling to get hold of essentials.
‘Supermarkets must continue to work with the government to explore innovative solutions that ensure people have access to essential food supplies in the challenging weeks and months ahead.
‘With coronavirus restrictions expected to last months, the government must ensure that there is more effective coordination of food supplies and clearer communication. All consumers, but particularly people who are vulnerable, need to have a much clearer route to access the right help and food supplies for their needs.’
- Sainsbury’s has asked existing customers aged 70+ to register on its automated phone system: 0800 953 4988
- Vulnerable Sainsbury’s customers aged under 70 and living in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland can call 0800 328 1700
- Anyone who is vulnerable, aged under 70 and living in England should register at Gov.uk
To help enable social distancing, which requires people to keep two metres apart from one another to avoid passing on the coronavirus, most supermarkets are operating ‘one in, one out’ policies.
Many have also introduced checkout screens to protect staff and are increasing cleaning, encouraging customers to use contactless payments where possible, putting down floor markers, and closing some checkouts to enable greater distances between customers and staff.
Tesco has introduced separate entrances and exits at some stores to make it easier for customers to keep their distance.
Online delivery slots are currently selling out weeks in advance for every supermarket, and retailers are trying to give priority to elderly and vulnerable customers.
Some supermarkets have asked customers to shop in store if they can.
Richard Walker, managing director of Iceland, echoed this advice in an interview with Radio 4 over the weekend in which he criticised Boris Johnson’s plea for people to shop online where possible.
Mr Walker said: ‘I’d actually urge the opposite of the PM in that, if you are healthy, not in a vulnerable category and adhere to social distancing guidelines, please do shop in store, but make sure you shop responsibly.’
Current online shopping situation by supermarket
Asda has urged non-vulnerable customers to shop in its stores rather than online to free up delivery slots for those that need them most.
It has also said those who are self-isolating or have additional needs should fill out the ‘Other information’ section when placing their orders to tell delivery drivers where they would like their groceries to be left.
Morrisons has turned off its app and has warned customers that they must make final edits to their online shopping basket no less than 48 hours before their delivery slot, or they could risk losing their order altogether.
Drivers are not accepting rejected or returned items at people’s doorsteps.
Ocado is not accepting any new customers at present and is prioritising vulnerable people.
It has warned shoppers who do manage to book a delivery slot to complete their order in one session, as it is ‘likely to bring order cut-off times forward’. The online-only supermarket has announced that it will temporarily stop delivering bottled water, which it says will allow them to deliver to 6,000 more homes each week.
Sainsbury’s is offering priority delivery slots to elderly and vulnerable customers – but this is limited to those who are already registered with the store. It is also offering limited slots to Delivery Pass holders each week.
The supermarket plans to increase its capacity to 600,000 across home delivery and click and collect by the end of next week. It says that it has helped 170,000 customers get priority access to online delivery via its customer careline so far, and has offered priority booking to more than 450,000 elderly or vulnerable customers.
Tesco has asked customers to shop in store where possible, and leave online delivery slots for vulnerable people and those self-isolating.
It has expanded its home delivery and Click+Collect capacity to around 780,000 delivery slots a week, up from 660,000 a fortnight ago, and this should increase by another 100,000 in the coming weeks.
Waitrose has brought forward its cut-off time for online order changes to 12pm the day before your delivery is due, to help meet the high demand. It is prioritising vulnerable customers.
- Find out more: coronavirus: how you can protect yourself
No supermarket has reported supply chain issues; they say they have simply been overwhelmed by demand.
The big grocers have been innovating in a number of ways to try and help healthcare workers and elderly and vulnerable people get the food they need.
Waitrose is protecting batches of ‘hard-to-find’ and essential groceries exclusively for NHS staff, and prioritising them at checkouts.
Morrisons has introduced essential food boxes for those unable to book a delivery slot or get out to access supplies. The boxes contain £30-worth of groceries selected by Morrisons, plus a £5 delivery fee.
M&S has teamed up with BP fuel stations and Deliveroo to offer an ‘Essentials by Deliveroo’ service, which will deliver basic essentials to households in self-isolation without a delivery fee. Around 120 M&S franchises will be signed up across the UK.
Deliveroo has set up the same scheme with the Co-op, offering deliveries from 400 stores to those most affected.
Trade title Retail Gazette reports that M&S has launched £30 essential grocery boxes for customers aged over 70 – as identified via Sparks Card data – containing 20 ‘household essentials’, from pasta to sweets.
M&S is also reported to have introduced more branded lines to its food ranges to boost availability during the coronavirus crisis. Usually the upmarket foodhalls focus on own-label products, but stores are now selling brands such as Rummo pasta and Tilda rice to help ensure availability of cupboard staples.
And all the major supermarkets have set aside exclusive shopping times for healthcare workers, which we’ve listed further up this page.
- Find out more: your shopping rights during the coronavirus crisis
The government has relaxed competition laws to allow supermarkets to share staff, stock and delivery vans in local areas to help keep stores open and deliveries happening.
The unprecedented decision means the various supermarket chains can be in contact each day, and can redistribute stock to rivals that are running low on certain essential items.
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced it would not be taking enforcement action if businesses cooperate with one another, as long as it’s necessary to protect consumers.
The government has also temporarily relaxed laws restricting late-night deliveries from warehouses to supermarkets, meaning they can stock up overnight to help fill the shelves. And the 5p plastic bag charge is being waived for online shops, to speed up deliveries.
Until recently, online supermarkets had a market share of around 7%, but the coronavirus lockdown has meant demand for this form of grocery shopping has skyrocketed.
In recent weeks, demand has been higher than it’s ever been: online-only Ocado acquired 133,000 new customers before placing a temporary halt on new accounts. It said that, at some points, transaction volumes had been 100 times the usual amount.
And in a recent Which? survey, 32% of respondents said they had shopped at independent and convenience stores more than usual since the start of the coronavirus outbreak.
According to market analyst Kantar, March saw the highest-ever grocery sales, with the average household spending an extra £62.92 during the month.
However, many have argued that the uptick in spending isn’t simply down to panic-buying: it stands to reason that, with everyone having to eat every meal at home, and restaurants and pubs being shut, more food will be bought from supermarkets.
And although demand is now said to be easing, it’s still high. Several grocers have announced large-scale recruitment drives, and Tesco says it has taken on 35,000 new employees in the past 10 days alone.
- Find out more: pharmacies introduce buying limits and special measures
In many areas, residents have set up Facebook or WhatsApp groups to offer help to people who are vulnerable or running low on essentials in their area – try searching for your local Mutual Aid group if you need help or want to get involved.
Some people have grouped together to place online orders, or added a few items for a neighbour, to save taking up extra delivery slots.
The neighbourhood hub Nextdoor is being used in a similar way too, with users reaching out to offer help with shopping or even supporting those in self-isolation.
- Has somebody in your community gone the extra mile for you? Help us celebrate the unsung coronavirus heroes.
Which? advice on coronavirus
Experts from across Which? have advice on everything from staying safe and keeping in touch with loved ones, to travel insurance rights and saving money on your household bills.
You can keep up to date with all the latest news and advice via the Which? coronavirus advice hub.
This story was originally published on 9 March and is being regularly updated with the latest developments.